On the instrumental uses of Arabic science

A new piece in Aeon, Forging Islamic science: Fake miniatures depicting Islamic science have found their way into the most august of libraries and history books. How? is quite rich food for thought. The nuts & bolts of the story are interesting enough, but perhaps the bigger picture is the emergence of (to borrow a phrase) “the idea of Islamic science.”

On the most general level, the spread of these obvious fakes is a matter of the epidemiology of ideas. Basically, the ubiquity of these fakes is like the spread of chain letters or viruses which hack our cognitive biases. By analogy, consider the fondness for Qing China exhibited by some early modern European thinkers, such as Leibniz and Voltaire. With hindsight, it is clear that their affection for Chinese civilization was a reflection more upon their critique and aspiration of their own civilization. For Leibniz, bureaucratic rationalism, and Voltaire, secular humanism.

Centuries on their Sinophilia is of academic interest as a fragment of cultural history which brings into salience particular currents which bubbled up during the period of both European modernization and development vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and the last contact that European civilization made with a powerful and self-assured alien civilization, that of China under the Kangxi Emperor, Yongzheng Emperor, and Qianlong Emperor. If you want to understand China during this period, its culture and politics, then these early modern thinkers are not the ones to consult. Their opinions and views on China shed more light on currents in their own culture than the reality in China.

A similar thing happened to Islam and Islamic civilization after the 18th century.  As Western civilization was secularizing some intellectuals pointed to the world of Islam as evidence that some tolerance of pluralism would be sustainable and preferable. What is being alluded to here is the system of formalized tolerance of the “People of the Book”, dhimmis, within Islam from its earliest period. But the highlighting of the Muslim alternative was less about Muslims and more about the reality of a post-Reformation early modern Europe riven by sectarian pluralism, as well as incipient secularization of a substantial numbers of intellectuals who began to perceive themselves as dissenters from the regnant orthodoxy as a class.

There is a scholarly study that engages in the exploration of the development and crystallization of the Muslim system of tolerance of religious minorities. That scholarship plumbs into the depths of the early formalization of Islam as a distinctive confession and civilization, and its roots (including the tolerance of dhimmis) in Byzantine and Sassanian practice. But when most people speak of the tolerance of early Islam in the West, they are speaking about and engaging issues related to the West, not Islam, which is simply a tool or instrument in an argument particular to factions within the West.

Going back to this specific issue, the fabrication of the depiction of “Islamic science,” there is a particular social and cultural context in the West that needs to be highlighted (as opposed to the Muslim world, which is a somewhat different dynamic, and analogous to the rise of Vedic science). Early modern secular intellectuals who contrasted the intolerance of Christian civilization to the relative tolerance of Islamic civilization were working implicitly within a modernist framework where objective truth would eventually pave the way for a universal civilization which would evolve out of the post-Christian West. This attitude is exemplified by the liberal French nobleman, Stanislas Marie Adélaïde, comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, who when arguing for removing various restrictions on Jews declared “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.”

These modernist conceits of clear and distinct universal truths and moralities leading to a common human ethos have fallen by the wayside. Rather, today many who espouse multiculturalist viewpoints are careful not to aver that one culture is superior or more advanced than another. This assumption means that today many reject a progressive and Whiggish view of history which implicitly highlights Western exceptionalism between 1700 and the current age.

These people may not be comfortable with the assertion that the form of intellectual inquiry that emerged out of Renaissance natural philosophy that we today call science is sui generis. A particular expression of the genius of Western civilization. Rather, what it is appealing toward many with a multiculturalist viewpoint, where all cultures have notionally similar ethical values, is that all cultures produce their own form of science, just as valuable, exceptional, and illustrative of universal human genius.

With Islam and science anyone with superficial interest in the topic can be easily convinced of the genius of individuals such as Ibn Sina. If the the great Bukharan polymath had been born today it would not be surprising if perhaps he became a scholar of some renown. But the reality is that most of the people who will tell you that Islam once had great scientists could not name a single scientist of pre-modern Islam. Just as with Voltaire and the Chinese, modern Western intellectuals who have moved beyond Whiggishness and naive modernism see in other cultures something that serves to critique and comment on their own. The legend of Islamic science is an instrument, a tool, in a particular deconstruction of the “myth” of Western science.

A curious aspect of this viewpoint, which is in some ways highly relativistic in relation to epistemology (“other ways of knowing”), is that it is also highly universalistic in ethics. Other cultures are shoehorned into frameworks and paradigms of Western making, particular mirrors through which all are seen darkly.

This is the same observation that could be made of early modern Whiggishness, where all cultures are seen as ascending slowly up a ladder of complexity and progress, with Northwest Europe in particular leading the way. Whigs viewed history in a linear fashion, and all societies could be placed along the sequence.

So what’s the multiculturalist/progressive/post-modern analog? It is common today in progressive Western circles to strive toward radical gender, sexual, and ethnoreligious egalitarianism. Justice. Many a time I have seen that patriarchy or sexual traditionalism are presumed to be colonial (white, Western) impositions on other societies. Western Muslims of a progressive bent may even assert that Islam is fundamentally and originally feminist and egalitarian. Hindu progressives likewise may highlight the depictions of sex acts Khajuraho temple complex as indicative of a liberal and tolerant attitude toward these matters before the arrival of the British, who introduced conservative bourgeois morals (note that often the terminology itself points to the operation of these individuals in a very Western tradition).

Nearly two hundred years ago the British Whigh politician Thomas Macaulay declared:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

Today progressive Westerners would never say such a thing. In part, because they would never assert that the West, and its culture, was in any way superior to that of the non-West. On the contrary, the tacit assumption might be that it was the West which manufactured and perfected the modes of oppression which spread across the world and caused human misery. With decolonization and the recession of Western imperialism, one would then see a diminishment of oppression and presumably human misery.

The difference between a 19th century liberal such as Thomas Macaulay is that whereas he perceived that the Indians would have to change their morals and develop their intellects to ever be equal to the English, today his progressive counterpart fundamentally assumes that the natural state of humanity was one of moral and intellectual equivalence. That is, oppression, the subjugation of women and minorities, the “marginalized”, was invented by Western Europeans, and imposed on non-Europeans. It is Western colonialists who brought the sin of oppression into the garden. They were responsible for the fall from ethical perfection, the stage of original grace.

Non-Europeans do differ from Europeans, but only in matters of detail, outward dress, food, and architecture. Accidents. But in matters of essence, there is no difference at all.

This conceit leads to all sorts of confusions.

After purchasing his papers, John Maynard Keynes declared Isaac Newton “was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians.” One can not deny that Isaac Newton was a genius, invariant of the age. Nor can one deny his scientific contributions, which modern undergraduates doing any scientific course of study must master to some extent. But the world of Isaac Newton was a different world, where witches were still burned, and men and women in the British Isles could still be executed for atheism. People did science, but not quite in the modern way. People were religious, but not quite in the modern way. There is a gap between 1700 and 2000.

Similarly, the ancient Greeks did science. But it was different from modern science, which is contingent on a sequence of events which are rooted in the latter Rennaissance. Did the Muslims of the “Islamic Golden Age” do science? I would say so. But like the Greeks, it was different from what came later (one could say the same of the “Aristotelian Renaissance”).

One must take the history of different cultures on their own terms, and understand them in the broad scope of human history. Theories are useful, but only in concert with a genuine engagement of the empirical record. Whigs and Marxists had theories, which grasped at essential fragments of reality but often obscured critical detail. There is a particular type of fashionable intellectual today who claims to eschew theory and focus on “thick description,” who nevertheless sneaks a particular theory of history through the back door, a variant of the “Noble Savage.”

In particular relation to “Islamic science,” there is some interesting detail in the texture of reality that is exposed when we attempt to understand it on its own terms. One thing which jumps out at you is that since most people are not particularly interested in the details, the terminology you use matters a great deal. Usually, we are focusing on the period between 750 A.D. and sometime around 1000 A.D. Now, when you use the term “Islamic Golden Age” or “Islamic science,” you obscure the reality that many prominent intellectuals during this period were not Muslim.

For example, Thabit ibn Qurra was a Sabian, which referred to the pre-Islamic and pre-Christian inhabitants of the city of Harran. The natives of Harran seem to have preserved religious traditions from Mesopotamian antiquity, in particular, astral cults. Additionally, they were also preservers and connoisseurs of Greek philosophical thought.

Though Sabians were exotic, Christians were dominant features of the scene during the early years of Islam and were instrumental in translation and preservation. In the Aeon piece, the author suggests that it should be called “Arab science” as opposed to “Islamic science.” But among the Muslims, most of the great thinkers were Iranians. That is Persians, or from related peoples. It is true that they wrote in Arabic, but Arabs were only a minority of the subjects of the Arab Caliphates before 1000 A.D. One reason Al-Kindi is exceptional is he was an Arab of the Arabs. A scion of an Arab tribe, with a lineage rooted in that ethnicity before Islam.

Matthew Cobb, an evolutionary biologist, uses the term “Arabic science” in his work to avoid these confusions. This reflects the fact that Arabic was the medium of communication between these scholars, irrespective of religion and ethnicity. In this way, it’s analogous to “Latin science,” which is probably a good term for the intellectual tradition which flourished in Western European during the Aristotelian Renaissance, and later on into the early modern period.

The universal moral of the story is that understanding history, and intellectual history, in particular, is hard. One must balance between commensurable universality and startlingly different local particularity. What is easy is co-opting and hijacking the shape of reality for one’s own ideological preferences. Humans are natural system-builders, theoretical thinkers. The reason being that systems allow one to come to conclusions without doing much research. Logical inference from presuppositions takes more mental effort than an intuitive reflex. But, it takes far less effort that researching the abyss of data from which one can make robust and genuine inferences, and test one’s theoretical reflexes.

But that journey is rewarding. Because it leads to understanding other peoples as ends unto themselves, rather than instruments.